On the eve of the publication of his Collected Poems (Picador), Meanjin editor Jonathan Green put some questions to Clive James.
At my age and in my ramshackle condition, the question has altered from ‘Why write?’ to ‘Why not?’ Once I wrote because I couldn’t skate, dance or dive. Now I have run out of any other means of expression even to dream of. The urge to express myself would still seem to be basic, however, even as the self disintegrates. It’s a personality deficiency. The unexpected bonus is that there’s so much to express, here at the terminus. Love of nature, for example: for one who had no particular love of nature, it’s a pleasant shock to find oneself getting interested in, say, a small girl-group of goldfinches, or a moth.
What is the difference between writing poetry and writing poems?
In the last few years it has become clearer to me that it’s the poem that matters. As I presumed to insist in my late little Poetry Notebook, poetry is an abstract term. I don’t necessarily stick to that principle when I’m reading Milton again, or Wordsworth’s Prelude—the big poem’s distant outline is so often too far away to be thought of as a binding frame—but I do stick to it when I’m writing a poem of my own. The way it hangs together has to be a large part of its effect.
Your career in media performance … did it all have writing at its core?
All I have ever been, as a media performer, is a writer who speaks. I still do it now, when giving a radio or TV interview about a new book. I write what I have to say in my head just before I say it. My Collected Poems will probably generate quite a few media appearances all through this year and I’ll try to say everything as entertainingly as I can, and kick myself afterwards if I don’t, even though I have so little strength left to kick with. I threw that last bit in so as to juice up the paragraph, because this is a media appearance, too.
How might your media persona have been different if there had been more poems at its heart and less poetry?
I think you mean to ask would I have been a different performer if I had focused my effort earlier on the sort of poems that I am writing lately. My brief answer to that would have to be that I might have been a more pure artist but a less prosperous one. I also think that my writing in general would have been less interesting without its impurities. When people kindly ask me what Richard Burton’s hairstyle is doing in my book Cultural Amnesia, I enjoy pointing out that it helps to introduce a necessary point about triviality, thereby enriching the texture of a serious argument. A less polite reply would be that a flirtation with the ephemeral gets me off my high horse, and that my interlocutor might try doing the same.
Is poetry an ascetic discipline, not for the faint hearted?
Even today, when I am so fully dedicated to writing poetry that I get up in the night more often to write than to piss, I still don’t like the picture of the poet as St Simon Stylites. Too much ascetic discipline and the poet shuts himself off from experience, leaving himself nothing to write about except his own aridity: an aim that not even he can attain in the end, because putting a poem together is too sensual a business. It’s fun, especially if it works. But it’s definitely not for the faint-hearted, because it might not work, or attract any attention even if it does.
In that last regard, I got very lucky: my smart mouth on screen turned me into a news story, and now, years later, I get camera crews hauling themselves up my front path and into my kitchen so that they can prop me into position and make me recite my little poem about the Japanese maple tree. Sometimes the crew is fresh from covering a multiple car-crash just outside Cambridge, on the M11 to London, a city which I will probably never see again. But I’m still in the heart of the action. I wonder whether it would have been the same for Gerard Manley Hopkins.
Is writing poetry stymied by good living?
Good living doesn’t stymie creativity, but it can sure make a mess of good taste. If Saddam Hussein had had a poetic streak, he might have written brilliantly about his own gold toilets. Frederick Seidel’s poems might not have been improved had he been poor, though they might have given us fewer tailored Italian suits, handmade pairs of shoes, bejewelled motorcycles and classy young women who couldn’t, according to his account, keep their pretty hands off him. Good living, indeed, is his very subject. As for me, I think I would write no worse if I had made the same kind of money as Malcolm Turnbull, and I was deeply pleased when I learned that he had been reciting my poem ‘The Book of My Enemy’ at the dinner table. I decided immediately that good living had not stymied him.
Can you describe the mental space you inhabit in the full flow of writing?
When the poem is in the crucial stage of insisting on being written, I concentrate so hard that nothing else matters. I am never surprised to hear that some poet I admire had a capacity to ignore the world when he was in the throes, or non-throes, of composition. Dante was famous among his literary friends for being able to go on writing even in the middle of a street-brawl. That knack for isolation and insulation is what can make the poet impossible to live with. Elizabeth Bishop’s lovely and important book One Art has a hidden story. She led a life of passion—her long involvement with Lota de Macedo Soares is one of the great love affairs in the history of the arts—but one of her passions was to be alone.
At the risk of boasting, I should say that my nature gave me an extra blessing on top of that one: I can not only get into that state, I can get back into it later, and get on with finishing the poem that I put aside when I was interrupted. It could even be that I arranged the interruption: a third blessing, because many a poem has been ruined through being rushed. Properly timed, the whole process can go on for years, sometimes decades. It’s fun: it must be, because otherwise it would be nuts.
Can you provoke that? Create it? Do you need to be taken by it?
No, the isolated state of creation can never be provoked. Not in my case, anyway. I would have given a lot to have had a routine, but I could never manage it. Inspiration is a visitation. The word almost says so, doesn’t it? One is being breathed into.
Take a poem that was a particular agony to write … talk me through that process: the forming, the massaging, the crafting of a particular phrase.
I can’t talk you through the process because it’s too complicated even at its simplest. It would be a case of the whole of the language conspiring to give you one phrase or cadence. Eliot’s breakthrough was to do that with all the languages he knew. All I’m sure of is that sound, not meaning, is the driver. I speak as one who is just now in the process of publishing a poem called ‘Anchorage International’ that forced me to go on rewriting it until I had removed almost every phrase that had forced me to get it started. Now that the poem is finally in proof I am almost depressed: 60 years in the business and I still don’t know how to do this. But I suppose I do really, at least a bit, or my Collected Poems would not be there. I genuinely didn’t expect to live long enough to see this book happen, and now I can hold it and flick through it, stopping now and then to wonder ‘How did he think of that?’—the sure sign that a poem has happened, like the trace of a particle in a cloud chamber.
A poem: is it writing, or more accurately composition … something musical?
A poem is a musical composition all right, but only in the sense that a musical composition is a poem. Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier is full of poems: it’s just that we don’t know what they mean. We only know that they are beautiful. There was an evening in Leipzig, near the end of the Weimar Republic, when Heisenberg and Edward Teller spent hours playing Bach while they argued about quantum mechanics. The music was the bit that they agreed on.
Do you begin from a phrase? A rhythm? An idea? A vision?
When the inspiration arrives, coming into the skull like a cosmic ray, it’s usually a phrase in my case, but it won’t start being a poem unless other particles come with it. A rhythmic pattern is always one of them, but the indispensable component is something much more elaborate than a particle: it’s a structure, getting ready to unfold.
Do the poems that flow from these different places take different forms? Different paths to their final form?
Once the components are near each other on the page of my notebook, it’s a case of either a very simple process—‘Let’s follow them and see what they eat’—or a very complicated one. I prefer to think that it’s a case of both: the elementary and the elaborate are aspects of each other. This, however, is the point where all the analogies with nuclear fission fall apart, because as the poem develops, the centre of attention shifts to the binding energy. One is trying to hold the thing together while it grows. Everything has to harmonise and synchronise: an explosion, or any kind of chain reaction, is the last thing you’re after. Secret trade tip: it helps to go on saying what you’ve done. So there’s the complete picture of the poet in his ecstasy: he’s not only entranced, he’s crooning. No wonder his wife starts building him a padded cell. It’s a craft, it’s an art, and it’s a madness. It was probably a madness even for George Herbert, the coolest customer in the book.
If you could write one thing again … what would it be? What would you change?
In Cultural Amnesia, smack in the middle of the best parenthesis I ever wrote, there’s a semi-colon where there ought to be a comma. Somehow it’s still there after about 20 reprintings of the book. I’d change that. But that, or any other accidental blemish, is all I’d change. My books were written from my subconscious nature, and they do all the arguing I need to do with my personality—which I wish had been a more perfect thing, but if it had been I might have had less to say.
What do you think this new collection charts … what writerly progress do you see?
The main vector of my Collected Poems is from sensory omnivorousness towards regretful introspection. Earlier I reflected on the world. Now I reflect on myself. Guessing in advance that the latter was a formula for generating boredom, I was careful to keep the worldly observations coming, to the point where I could describe a bird landing in a tree. From my earlier work you would have thought it had arrived by train.
What surprised you in compiling it?
When I page my way through my Collected Poems I am surprised often, I’m glad to say, but I’m most surprised by the fact that Australia is not only there at the start, through direct experience, and there at the end, through the dying reflections of a trapped exile, but also there throughout. My homeland formed my imagination, and went on forming it while I travelled. It would have been the same if I had gone into space. On the long flight to Jupiter I would have seen the stars glittering like the surface of Sydney Harbour in the afternoon.
What did you discard?
I took out nearly all the longer poems, and I will probably instruct my executors not to bring them back; although Peregrine Prykke’s Pilgrimage, my theatrical hit from long ago, perhaps deserves a longer run. I’ll think about that; but mainly I was keen to keep the intensity and variety going throughout, while providing a volume that doesn’t die from its own dimensions. I had noticed that the complete Ted Hughes, and even the complete Robert Lowell, were in nobody’s pocket, because they were too big. A poet of that importance can take the risk, or have it taken for him. But for an entertainer, which I still am even now, the imperative must always be to come on strong, to keep it crisp, and to leave them laughing when you go.
In an ideal and easeful death … would you want poetry in your last thoughts? What poetry?
I’ll die to music, not poetry. But I’ll probably be thinking of Prospero, the fading of the insubstantial pageant, and how he didn’t really mean it. If the world is real for Miranda, it’s real enough.
A piece of verse you might like to have read over your body?
I might specify that Marvell’s ‘Definition of Love’ should be recited over my corpse, as a reminder to everybody present that I knew when I was outclassed. I wasn’t that crazy.
Have you written an epitaph?
I wrote epitaphs all my life.